Draenor Rock City: The Exclusionary Nature of Nerd Cool

Tzufit and Apple Cider look forlornly at the Dark Portal.

Written by Apple Cider Mage and Tzufit

If you had asked us last week what sorts of things Blizzard could do that might make us feel like World of Warcraft isn’t a game for us, we might have made some comment about treatment of female characters or perhaps the ongoing sexism that women face from other players. We probably wouldn’t have said, “They could make a show about middle-aged men designing motorcycles.” So when Blizzard dropped the announcement that they were partnering with American Choppers for a strange web-series that would document a competition to design a sick motorcycle as an in-game mount (what, another one?), we were glad that we weren’t the only ones going, “huh?”

The more we thought about it, this confused us because it was yet another tone-deaf offering that pushed us farther and farther away from World of Warcraft. Jokes about mid-life crises aside, it’s hard to be excited about the upcoming Warlords of Draenor expansion and WoW in general when you feel like you don’t belong there.

Because WoW is an MMORPG, feeling as if you belong in the world is exceptionally important, arguably more so than in any other genre of video game. In years past, we have drawn our excitement for new expansions by thinking about the things that our characters will do and see, the places they will explore, and the new challenges that we, as players, will experience. In recent weeks, people who used to see themselves as curious about the world we are about to inhabit now have a hard time picturing themselves there. We find ourselves traveling to an alien world, and yet the alienation we feel comes not from Draenor but instead from the people who have created it.

While we cannot know precisely who has their hands in every pie at Blizzard, it seems like the public faces and taste-makers of World of Warcraft often gravitate around fairly similar themes that they consider “cool.” Draenor, more so than any other expansion, feels saturated in these ideas, despite protests to the contrary. The particular rally point in this case has indubitably been Y’rel, a strong Alliance Joan of Arc-type. Yet, everything we’ve seen thus far, from new extra beefy mob models to some alpha dialogue is oriented around a hyper-masculine world that is brutal, savage (as we have been told ad nauseum) and inexplicably full of rock star pyrotechnics. When we saw the art piece of all of the warlords lined up like a gruesome metal band, there was an emotional distance between Chris Metzen eagerly throwing up the horns and us looking on in confusion. We’ve seen fun and goofy inclusion of these ideas before, but the tone now feels very serious; it’s a weaponized barrage of these concepts to the exclusion of everything else.

This nerdy (but still male) idea of “coolness” isn’t a unique problem to Blizzard. Big creator names in nerd culture are still predominantly male, which has been true since long before “nerd” and “geek” were a persistent cultural identity. You have Tolkien, Lucas, Martin, Whedon and, for our purposes, Metzen. Nerd-dom has been retconned into a male space, a refuge for the those who did not fit the traditional image of masculinity, but who enjoyed Dungeons and Dragons and got thrown into lockers because of it. The duality of this background is that for all of the underdog position that nerd men have had most of their lives, many of them still enjoy the benefits of a patriarchal culture that nurtures and comforts their tastes and desires, often to the tune of millions of dollars. For a group of outcasts, loners and misfits, they have, especially in the 2000s, enjoyed a renaissance period. When you combine that with a fairly critical ignorance (or even outright hostility) to other people who are not considered the marketable norm, your fantasy world, much less are suddenly devoid of people outside of that nerd paradigm.

The problem with nerd culture and the belief that only men are considered creators is that it reinforces that the only stories worth caring about are for men, by men, and in a way that is cool to other men. It’s a rigid set of interests that tends to not consider much else outside of it. The worlds themselves sometimes involve a realism and grittiness that is at best, voyeuristic – it’s easy to insert things into a fantasy world to make it more real when it’s not a reality you have to confront on a regular basis. All of this is nerd men and their creations revolving around power and cachet – the stoic, grizzly hero flanked by compatriots and female love interests. In the case of Blizzard, a lot of it looks like muscular brutes, heroes of light and rock guitars.

What seems apparent to us is that some of Blizzard’s content creators are still finding the same things cool at 40 that they did at 15, and though their customer base has matured, their interests are showing their age. No one faults content creators for having inspirations, but when you achieve a level of success that allows you to create content for literally millions of people all over the world, isn’t it reasonable to ask that your inspirations grow to reflect the diversity of your audience? It seems equally reasonable to expect that this is not only something Blizzard should consider but rather something they for which should actively strive.

How we’ve seen people typify this cultural problem within Blizzard and throughout Warlords of Draenor is one of marketing, and we don’t believe that that’s entirely the case. Marketing is a symptom of the problem. The primary issue is a concept and an atmosphere that people are struggling to see themselves in. Is it so terrible to ask for inclusion? Is it so terrible to be afforded even a fraction of the same consideration that a particular segment of nerds have enjoyed for years in WoW? Our standards are not unreasonable; in fact, we might go so far as to call them incredibly low. While active inclusion of diverse women in Warcraft’s story may be the ideal, in the past we have at least been able to say that WoW does not actively exclude us. Recently, that seems to be less and less true. It feels like WoW has been moving backwards (now quite literally) in some places with how women are characterized or talked about, those failures buoyed by the few small successes we’ve enjoyed since then. For every five minutes Jaina is allowed to be a competent leader, we have many more moments of women being killed, hurt, married off or otherwise left behind.

There’s such a spectrum of problems that surround both the women in the story and the audience that it’s hard to list them all. The problem now is how to deal with these revelations about Blizzard and the game we’ve been enjoying for so many years. Loud, vociferous criticism only works when we are able to make headway, and the road to Warlords has so far been littered with increasingly insurmountable obstacles.

Much is still unknown about the new expansion at this point. Alpha and beta often provide key contextual clues to the overall direction an expansion is headed and we acknowledge that there have been exceptionally long dry spells in between updates since Blizzcon. It’s easy to feel like small, select issues make up a larger percentage of future content than may prove to be the case. Historically, alpha and beta have been periods when we’ve seen that critical analysis can and does create change and improvement in Warcraft. Yet, for the moment, we don’t know how to align ourselves with Blizzard’s visionaries because their ideas don’t seem to include us.

April Fool’s Jokes and Perfect Storms

Draenei priest drawing.

Taking a page from Vidyala and posting my own draenei art.

At the risk of stirring things up even further, I want to talk about why the fake Artcraft presented by Blizzard’s World of Warcraft team was the worst possible joke to make at the worst possible time.  I hope people don’t think I am going to debate the relative offensiveness of it; I am not because I do think it was offensive and I know there’s better people that have been talking about it rather than myself. No, rather, we’re going to talk about what made everything so much worse.

I know the title talks about “perfect storms” in that it was a confluence of several factors coming together, but let’s abandon that particular metaphoric imagery for a second. Imagine a giant field full of grass. In this scenario, World of Warcraft’s assembled community of fans are the grass.

It’s been a drought since Blizzcon. We’ve been fairly starved on concrete updates on the expansion’s progress. We’ve seen some model update Artcrafts, some dev watercoolers, but no beta, no big news and only minor progress on everything else. Bigger sites like Wow Insider or Wowhead news are scraping for content and opting to talk about Blizzard’s other releases like Diablo III: Reaper of Souls or Heroes of the Storm. We’ve grown pretty dry and bitter about the expansion the longer we don’t hear about it. It’s a pretty unusual method given how long we’ve been marinating in Pandaria’s last content patch. It would be easier to deal with if we had the new expansion to look forward to on the horizon but it’s been pretty dust and tumbleweeds thus far.

In this field, imagine a couple piles of goblin bombs laid haphazardly on the ground, hidden among the tall weeds. These are the issues a lot of us have had with the potential content of the expansion: lack of positive female character representation, expectations of more grimdark “gritty” realism, and the inevitable “boys trip” that we heard about at Blizzcon. There’s a lot of worries among some of us regarding how enjoyable we will find the questing and story experiences of this new expansion. While Ji Firepaw was a net positive, what lurks in the water for Warlords?

On top of that, the air is dry. Fans are looking for anything to digest or keep their attention. Our community is tied between forums, social media, blogs and anyone we play with in-game. We spend a lot of time nitpicking, dissecting and debating. Given the lack of information thus far, it’s mostly speculation. People are anxious.

Then you toss out the equivalent of a lit match on all of that and you have an explosive, incendiary wildfire on your hands. The models make people feel awful about themselves or angry at Blizzard. The blog text makes fun of all sorts of women and pokes at things like incest and twerking. It comes on the heels some other April Fools jokes that while bizarrely problematic, are also funny. It sticks out like a sore thumb. It riles up people who only want “real” content. It makes everyone who was worried about problematic content feel even more unsettled about their gut feelings. The community goes into an uproar: those who found it funny, those who didn’t, and people who think the “not funny” people are giant babies. The explosions that occur over any sexist content go about as well as expected now that everyone is in on the discussion.

Pulling myself back far enough from my feelings about women being mocked at a time like this (not intended maliciously, of course) means I look at why this happened. Is this a cultural problem within Blizzard? Did everyone think this would have a positive impact and anyone who didn’t not get to speak? Were they overruled? Who looked at this before it went live? We’re not talking about a developer being caught off-guard and speaking close to his chest, but something that was written, edited and arranged for publishing on the front page. Models were created specifically for this. It makes me wonder.

Sometimes thinking about the mechanics and anatomy of a controversy keeps me from getting too upset about the thorny emotional center, but even if you know how a disaster came to be, it doesn’t help you deal with the aftermath.

 

 

Year That Was: 2013

They love the way I walk
‘Cause I walk with a vengeance
And they listen to me when I talk
‘Cause I ain’t pretending

– Beyoncé, Grown Woman

It was a decent year.

I talked about Blizzard’s choices in raid bosses, analyzed the Alliance’s rise in powerful women, started a podcast, asked why Blizzcon doesn’t have a harassment policy, talked to fellow cis people about how to respect trans WoW players, met fellow community people at Blizzcon, as well as looked at Warlords of Draenor‘s women problem.

I definitely made some enemies but I made more friends, perhaps. I definitely feel like I’m in the black on my ledger on that particular front, especially with mending old fences.

My content production on this blog in particular has slowed down a bit now that I also do the podcast but I don’t feel like the blog overall is suffering. It definitely has been weird moving into a slightly different position in the community, especially now that there’s been more discussions among people about matters of sexism, gender representation, and treating people in different groups with respect. It’s a thing that needed to happen and I’m glad I don’t feel so alone in expressing those thoughts. It’s moving glacially when it comes to Blizzard but overall I think the community has grown a bit.

Definitely started feeling more like a personality this year versus just a name and a blog attached. Not sure if this is overall positive or negative. I got ensconced into a more powerful position with my ideas and words reaching higher up ears and feeling the pressure that I had to say the right things versus the things I really feel all the time.

As far as WoW itself goes, it was a cooling off of my real drive to “succeed” at end-game. I have no real desires to raid a lot anymore. Flex made it possible to do more content in less time and at a pace I don’t feel stressed out about. I might have taken a couple of wrong turns as a guild leader but the rest fell into place otherwise. I’ve been working hard on finding a new thing to enjoy every day, otherwise I would have burned out long ago. Having to produce content and look critically at the content, lore has kept my interest active beyond the quotidian grind of  Mists of Pandaria.

Overall, I can’t really complain. I don’t have a solid course planned for 2014, but I think I’ll do alright. We have an expansion on the horizon and there’s no end to things I could say. If 2012 was getting your attention, 2013 was me having something to say.

In the immortal words of Beyoncé, I’m a grown woman, I can do whatever I want.